UNIQUE AMIR BAI KARNATAKI
BY Arunkumar Deshmukh
The early phase of Talkie films was full of 2 types of people.
1. Those who wanted to do something worthwhile in this new field, and
2. Those who saw this field as an opportunity to showcase their skills.
Initially, due to the Studio System, no special qualifications were required to get a job, because in this system anybody was required to do any job. There was no job specification. For example, a script writer would be required to do a role in a film, or the music Director would have to sing a song in the film. So, there are cases where people initially taken for one job, finally excelled in some other job. Such examples are many. Amiya Chakrawarty who was working as a Canteen Manager in Bombay Talkies, ended up as a respected Director of films. Najam Naqvi, a continuity man in BT again, became an actor and a well-known Director, Ashok Kumar-a technician in Photo department became a famous actor and also sang songs, Guru Dutt starting as a Choreographer ended as an actor and a famous Director.
In the Music field also, the film makers needed actors and actress who were reasonably good looking and had a knowledge of singing. This was a great opportunity for the Kothawalis, Tawayafs and singing families, where singing was the profession. Good looking girls from such families had comparatively an easier entry in films. Such actresses were generally called “Bai”, like Jaddanbai, Rattanbai, Waheedanbai, Zohrabai etc. Most joined the industry, acted or sang for few films, and then got married to some actor or a director and settled in life. But some girls joined the films to make a career and contribute substantially. One such was a girl from Karnataka …
Amirjan was born in a Julaha( singing family) family of Belgi in Bijapur district of Karnataka. She was one of the 6 sisters and 1 brother. Singing was very much in the family and her sister Gauhar was already in films- acting and singing. Amirjan was also fond of singing and had dreams of joining films and making a name in it.
Unlike other girls from singing families, Amirjan first completed her schooling and then went to Bombay. Her sister Gauhar helped her to get her first film ‘Vishnu Bhakti’-1934. This film did nothing much for Amirjan’s career advancement, except that her name was now changed as AMIRBAI KARNATAKI.
Undaunted she continued with other films. Her real break came with Kismet-1943. Her own kismat also changed with this film.
I will not go into the details of her Bio, Filmography or Discography, which is too well known and easily available on Internet. I would especially recommend Mr. Vidur Sury ji’s exhaustive article here:
From all the female singers of the 40s, my first vote goes to Amirbai. She was, in true sense, Amir in her singing and justified her name.
Amirbai’s voice was very flexible. She could sing any type of song with great ease, be it a Bhajan, a Naat, Lori, Holi, Diwali, Party, Comedy, Tragedy, Ghazal, Thumri, Qawwali- you just name the genre and she has sung it.
I would like to highlight some of my favourite Amirbai songs that exemplify her comfort level in various genres.
The first among these is the famous song from Samadhi-1950, sung with Lata-“Gore gore o banke chhore.” This song from Samadhi, composed by C. Ramchandra, created a hurricane in the music lovers and for a long time everybody hummed this song. Young boys and girls danced on this song in festivals and functions and youngsters sang it to impress others. Amirbai skillfully combined her golden voice with the novel lilting tune to give a superb inviting effect to the song. Appropriately shot on Kuldip kaur, the song gave a “come hither” invitation to the listeners. This song also went to prove that whatever the genre, Amirbai could ‘just do it’ ! Here is the song-
Out of all her songs, from the first to the last, my favourite is a duet with Surendra from film Bharthari-1944. The song is “Bhiksha de de maiya Pingala”. In this song Queen Pingla is responding to Raja Bharthari, who comes as a Jogi asking for Bhiksha (Alms). She recognises him and expresses concern how he would cope up with the hard life of a Jogi, when he had enjoyed a King’s life earlier. The song is like a question answer session, written by Pt. Indra and composed by Khemchand Prakash. This song had become very popular in India and was copied in the Gujarati version of the film. It is still played during poojas.
Another song sung by Amirbai that is my favorite is a Bhajan from the film Village Girl-1945. This film had some very popular and evergreen songs, like “Baithi hoon teri yaad ka le kar ke sahara” by Noorjahan, but this Bhajan by Amirbai was something out of the world. Though MD Shyamsunder had copied the popular tune of Jagmohan’s Geet- “Us raag ko paayal mein” famous in those days, for this song’s mukhda as well as Antara, Amirbai made it a Bhajan dripping with Bhaktiras. Coupled with the scenes on the screen this Amirbai Bhajan can be rated amongst the best Bhajans of HFM. Here is the Bhajan-“Bansi ki Madhur” …
As I said earlier, Amirbai was at ease with any type of song and she would put all her skill and appropriate emotions in it to make it the Best. There are many sad songs in Hindi films. Even Amirbai has sung many sad songs in her career, so it was difficult to pinpoint just one. However I opt for the sad song from Nargis-1946, “Roti aankhon mein.” Music Directors Husnlal Bhagatram had given excellent music to this song and the tune haunts one for a long time.
Though Amirbai sang about 350 songs in about 135 films, her real singing reign was from 1940 to 1950 only. After 1950, the competition became intense, she became tired, public taste and singing pattern changed and consequently singing offers dwindled. From 1951 to 1954 she sang only 17 songs in 12 films. Her last song was in Bankelal-1972.
Amirbai was very popular in Karnataka and she too was proud to be from Karnataka. Her family runs a cinema Theatre called “AMIR ” in Bijapur even today.
She died on 3-3-1965, but left a sweet legacy of her songs. They will forever remind us about this exceptional singer.
Amirbai was an exceptional singer who could do justice to the song, lyricist and the music director in every piece that she performed. She was one of those who came to the Industry with a desire to do something worthwhile and she really did it!